February 9, 2019


Punishing the Crime vs. Blacklisting the Soul (Jonathan Kay, 2/09/19, Quillette)

I am not a Christian. But I always have admired its emphasis on forgiveness and absolution, which are the most attractive and useful aspects of that faith. In our own age, this tradition has been co-opted by progressive secularists, who (properly) urge that our criminal-justice systems accommodate the possibility that people can change, and that we aren't stamped "good" or "evil" at birth by God's hand.

And just as Christians of yore celebrated the lowly street criminal who shed his criminal ways so that he might wander urban alleyways and country roads humbly preaching the word of God, so, too, do modern leftists reserve a special form of mercy for ex-criminals whose travails have granted them perspective on society's bowels. Quillette author Zaid Jilani, for instance, recently described a sympathetic article in The Intercept about a murderer who, having paid his debt to society, was running for council in Austin, Texas. The author, Jilani noted, argued that Lewis Conway Jr.'s life experiences made him "an important candidate, able to connect with the thousands who have been isolated and defined by previous misdeeds of theirs or others--especially in the city's minority communities, which as elsewhere are disproportionately impacted by the system." In his article, Jilani contrasted the sympathy toward Conway with the treatment of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who, of course, did not kill anyone--or, in fact, commit any crime at all--but rather stands accused of gross insensitivity and racism because of a photo of a man in blackface, and another dressed as a KKK member, included in a 35-year-old university yearbook page.

Jilani intended for this juxtaposition to show up the extraordinary hypocrisy displayed by some leftists when it comes to the treatment of past sins. But I would take the analysis one step further--for when it comes to Northam, it is not really the man's sins that are at issue--since if that were the basis of judgment, he would be excused many times over thanks to the decades of professional excellence and public service that followed his university years. Rather, what is being impugned is Northam's very soul. For one of the dominant ersatz-religious conceits of our age is that, when it comes to race, we all are marked by either purity or corruption--that is, in the language of old-timey religion, we are either heretics or believers, asleep or woke, lost or saved. And every tweet we write, every word we utter, every yearbook photo we publish shall be taken as part of the evidentiary record by which we shall be judged.

While the new religion of anti-racism has borrowed this fundamentalist take on human nature, it has very much rejected the leavening Christian tradition of forgiveness and pity. Which is why militant anti-racism now carries such a brittle, mean-spirited aspect. The subtext of the campaign against Northam is that his actions mark his soul as irredeemably stained--no matter whether the yearbook photos were from 35 years ago or last week. In the way that anti-racism promotes the idea of bigotry as a form of original sin that, once revealed, cannot ever be expunged or denied, it essentially channels the idea of hell-bound pre-destination in a way that would have earned appreciative nods from Gottschalk of Orbais.

Any creed, religious or secular, that organizes humanity into categories of good or evil based not on actions, but on their mere thoughts or the presumed state of their soul, is disposed toward Inquisition and social panic--since our thoughts are invisible to others, evil can lurk in our unconscious minds, and all that matters is whether our cast of mind puts us on the right side of history. (Such attitude was on display, certainly, in the response to Irish actor Liam Neeson's recent confession that, almost 40 years ago, he once had roamed the streets looking to provoke a violent confrontation with a black man. The confession was rendered freely in the spirit of encouraging self-awareness of our dark emotions, and no real crime is alleged to have taken place. But promotional events associated with his new film were canceled anyway.) In a society that distinguishes the sin from the sinner, on the other hand, recitals of past misdeeds and impure thoughts are tolerated, and even encouraged--as with the Christian tradition of confession. For it is understood that we all share the same goal of preventing malign imaginings from being translated into action.

Liam Neeson started a vital debate. To condemn him is to end it: The actor's candid admission tells us a lot about racial bias. We should seize this moment to learn more  (John Barnes,  8 Feb 2019, The Guardian)

When I was asked in an interview yesterday whether I would forgive Neeson if he had actually killed an innocent black man I was stumped. Of course I couldn't? But then I considered how I would feel about a young black kid living in inner city London who gets caught up in the wrong crowd and ends up killing someone with a knife. A young man living in a society in which he feels that he has no opportunities? This is not an excuse for murder but maybe I can see how this young man's environment has pushed him towards this path.

Neeson went on to talk about the bigotry and racism still present in Northern Ireland when you scratch the surface. It shows that, 20 years after the end of the Troubles, there are still conversations that need to be had.

The commentary on Neeson so far reads as if he'd been clandestinely recorded glorying in a secret hatred of black people, not, as is the case, freely giving on-the-record comments. This is not Mel Gibson on a drunken antisemitic tirade. This was a story purposely told to a journalist in which he explicitly explained that he was horrified about thinking this way. He could have kept this whole story to himself and we would be none the wiser.

The fight against racial bias in society will not be won by hounding Liam Neeson or boycotting his films. It will be won by allowing honest discussions about why people hold biased views and exposing the flawed logic behind them.

One of the curious implications of these moral panics is that those of us who are judging others are ourselves without sin.  This is obviously inane. And just as we would like to forgiven our own, we ought to be able to forgive those who are ashamed of and seek forgiveness for their sins.

On the other hand, we ought punish vigorously those who are shameless.

Governor Northam, for instance, tried apologizing when he thought he was in the yearbook picture, but then decided to brazen things out when he determined that his episodes of blackface were not actually memorialized in the specific photo.  Brett Kavanaugh and his friends, meanwhile, acknowledge drinking so excessively that they can not possibly have remembered all their behaviors and treating young women like meat, yet he was incapable of accepting any responsibility for himself, even if a younger self. Elizabeth Warren has created a mess for herself by trying to defend the fact that she has Indian heritage when the question is whether she tried gaming the system by using such lineage to give herself an advantage over the people who affirmative action is designed to benefit (Hint: not middle-class white girls).  

What Mr. Neeson has admitted to is certainly worse than wearing blackface, but, because of his own behavior now, more forgivable.  He is genuinely ashamed, repentant and is sharing it unbidden because he knows it to be morally instructive.  He deserves our thanks, not our opprobrium.  And he represents a standard that we should apply generally as the hunt goes on for the sins of our youth: stand up, take responsibility, express some acknowledgment that what you did was wrong and you regret it, and describe what you have learned and what we all apply in our own lives from the lesson.

Posted by at February 9, 2019 8:22 AM